The project's scale makes it one of Palo Alto's largest proposals under "planned community" zoning, a designation that allows developers to exceed building regulations in exchange for negotiated benefits. While the city sees a new police building as a major benefit, on Wednesday the Planning and Transportation Commission got to hear about the potential downside of the proposal from residents arguing that it will lead to parking and traffic nightmares.
The Wednesday meeting was the second "scoping session" for the project's Environmental Impact Report. The goal was to determine the scope of the report's analysis. Just about everyone agreed that traffic issues should top the list.
"This proposal raises interesting philosophical issues like how much development we want in the city or should the city be selling zoning?" former mayor Dick Rosenbaum said. "But for the (environmental study), the main issue has to be traffic."
Other speakers expressed similar reservations.
"There is so much talk about traffic and parking tonight, I'm afraid the (Planning and Transportation Commission) is going to be called the Parking and Traffic Commission," resident Art Lieberman said.
Both the commission and community members stressed the importance of accurately gauging how many employees would work within how many square feet. The city currently assumes the traditional model of 250 square feet per employee, a ratio that some people feel is outdated (many startup companies have a ratio closer to 100 feet).
Some at the meeting emphasized the increasing bicycle and pedestrian traffic in the area and the cumulative effect of other developments, including the proposed mixed-use building at 3159 El Camino Real, which includes apartments, retail and a major expansion of Equinox Fitness.
"The planning department seems to be on an ever-more-rapidly moving stairway, struggling to keep up with the increasing number of projects, one by one, treated in isolation when the traffic and the transportation issues really are in common," said Lieberman, president of the Barron Park Association. "The only people who are happy about (the) work flow are the consultants doing the traffic studies."
Fred Balin, a College Terrace resident, agreed that the city needs to address problems by looking at the cumulative effects.
"The benefit of this project (the police headquarters) is at the top of this city's priorities," Balin said. "But there is not sufficient support from residents to fund it. Public confidence in land-use matters is not good. And if the project is approved, residents will still have the final say."
Bob Moss, a frequent critic of dense developments, shared his estimates about the development: It would draw more than 2,100 workers and 1,700 car trips each way during rush hour, adding more congestion to nearby small residential streets, he said. But that wasn't his only concern.
"We have a real problem with (toxic) contamination, with health risks, with parking, with traffic, with (the job and housing balance). Other than that, this is a wonderful project!" Moss said sarcastically.
Planning commissioners also had some concerns. Commissioner Michael Alcheck said that the public benefit from this development could not come at the expense of the living standards of Palo Alto residents.
"We have to be brutally honest with ourselves, which is to say that we welcome developments that meet our guidelines, but it can't impact our residents to such an extent," he said. "It just seems cruel for the city to encourage this development and welcome this public benefit, while not at the same time preserving the standard of living."
Alcheck suggested that traffic solutions should act like taxes: discourage certain behaviors with higher taxes. In other words, decrease available parking and force businesses and employees to seek alternatives. Acting Planning Director Aaron Aknin suggested a similar solution, which Chair Eduardo Martinez called the San Francisco plan of "You can build it, but they can't come."
Alcheck suggested some untapped resources to counter traffic mayhem, like business-run traffic solutions (think Google buses) and residential parking-permit programs.
"I want to highlight something that we all already know, which is that parking issues are not unique to this neighborhood," Alcheck said. "The reluctance to implement a residential-parking permit program — or more aptly, the speed — is devastating. I wish I could be prouder. We're pitting residents against residents. We're pitting home owners against business owners."
Alcheck also said that the notion that the permit program is complex is "insulting," given the working model in San Francisco, where many neighborhoods have such programs in place.
Martinez ended the night by listing the guidelines from the city's Comprehensive Plan, including "avoid abrupt changes in scale between residential and non-residential areas and between residential areas of different densities" and "use a variety of planning and regulatory tools, including growth limits, to ensure that business change is compatible with the needs of Palo Alto neighborhoods."
"That's sort of part of our core beliefs, that when we introduce a project, the scale has to relate to what's there," Martinez said. "(The housing) is there. People live there. People love it. And people are here tonight to defend it."
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